Mikhail Bakhtin | Critical Essay by Richard Jackson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Mikhail Bakhtin.
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Critical Essay by Richard Jackson

Two citations from Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) are enough to suggest the difficulty involved in coming to any terms (in that phrase's sense of a unifying label and a temporal enclosure) with this increasingly important Russian writer. The first citation comes from his third chapter, "The Idea in Dostoevsky": "It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses." Later, in talking about catharsis, he says: "Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future." What marks this pluralistic approach where nothing is conclusive, according to Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, is "variety, nonrecurrence, and discorrespondence," a self that "never coincides with itself," an open, subversive, "carnivalistic" view of literature and the world. In Bakhtin's texts, laughter becomes a crucial "weapon" (military metaphors abound in his style), and polyphony, dialogism, intertext, utterance, and heteroglossia become the crucial code words. Each refers, in various contexts, to the ways in which characters and authors interchange language, the way each speaks in the voice of the other and at the same time undercuts the other. Here, process, not product, is the aim, and expressions such as difference, decentering, and other buzz words of deconstruction are "always already" deployed—that is, present implicitly in the text they are used to describe. What we are faced with, then, is a world of vague origins and indeterminate ends. According to Bakhtin, "The novel begins by presuming a verbal and semantic decentering of the ideological world, a certain linguistic homelessness of literary consciousness, which no longer possesses a sacrosanct and unitary linguistic medium for containing ideological thought" (Dialogic Imagination). In other words, the novel sets us adrift in a world we must half invent by entering into a dialogue with it.

Bakhtin's position in contemporary thought is not so much that of a direct influence on authors, though several acknowledge their debt to him, but that his texts, unavailable so long to English and American readers, help to describe and redefine what has been happening in Western thought during the past few decades. In our own time the poet Richard Howard admits the influence of Bakhtin's dialogic sense of character upon his own dialogues and monologues; Stephen Dobyns and Derek Walcott seem to use Bakhtin's notion of the dialectic relation between self and society; John Ashbery's and A. R. Ammons' use of the idea of the linguistic process of imagination can be better defined in Bakhtin's terms than in the deconstructive terms often used to describe their work; the play between reality and fiction in works by John Irving and Tim O'Brien can be better understood by Bakhtin's description of Dostoevsky's use of character; and the surrealistic texts of James Tate, Charles Simic (who we know has read Bakhtin), and others owe something to the idea of literature as carnivalistic. The influence here is as pervasive as it is (in most cases) nonspecific; but just this sort of influence, as we shall see below, is in strict keeping with Bakhtin's own work.

The difficulty of entering into a dialogue with Bakhtin's texts is precisely the above-mentioned "plurality of consciousness" (note the singular), which even encompasses the immediate problem of authorship: both Freudianism and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (published under the name of Voloshinov) as well as The Formal Method in Literary Studies (published under the name of Medvedev) are disputed texts, as are a number of essays. Tzvetan Todorov, from convincing internal evidence, suggests that these books are probably not by Bakhtin, but influenced by him. The short, choppy sentences and sections of Formal Method, for example, are opposed to the looser, more rambling style of unquestioned texts. A "Bakhtin Circle" of critics, writers, and other artists existed in the 1920's and '30's in a way that can only be defined as a single, pluralistic consciousness—and Bakhtin himself, Todorov points out, disdained the idea of simple authorship and favored the medium of the public-meeting forum, a Socratic form of debate. Yet Bakhtin admitted to these disputed texts later on, after Voloshinov and Medvedev had died, and the political constraints of the times may have prompted Bakhtin to authorship under other names. Bakhtin was arrested in 1929, and many Marxist references in all the texts are nods to the censor, though Bakhtin has a distinctly socialist stance.

The question of what constitutes authorship is central to Bakhtin because it relates to his underlying concern with the nature of the self. Does authorship mean providing new ideas in an "idiosyncratic vocabulary," or the translation of those ideas and words into a more public format, or the actual preparation of a manuscript? "There are no pure texts, nor can there be," Bakhtin writes (quoted in Clark and Holquist). For Bakhtin, the self is never finished—and his habits of writing in an illegible pencil script, of leaving texts unfinished and projects abandoned in notebooks in the manner of Coleridge, underscore this. The self exists for Bakhtin as a "dialogic" relationship, that is, as a "set of responses to the world." These responses are given in language, through "utterances" (including nonverbal associations, the "force" of language) that by definition take the "other" into account. Each utterance changes as the "boundaries" of the speaker and listener do; it is expressive, not just denotative; it is always addressed to someone; it has an evolving relation to past and future utterances so that its meaning cannot be fixed. In other words, the utterance is based upon the possibility of a response and the fact that such utterance itself is always already a response. Utterance is thus always point of view. This is why, for Bakhtin, "a word's meaning never coincides with the word itself," but with the larger and more evasive movement of the dialogue: the self.

The self, then, is known "from other selves. I cannot see the self that is my own, so I must try to perceive it in other's eyes." This bifocal or dialogic self is always futural; every "I" has a "thou" and includes the "thou." What characterizes this relationship between self and other is "answerability": the inclusion of dialectic viewpoints in any statement or judgment, the notion that being means "being with." The early and continuing influence upon Bakhtin here is Kant's notion of a dialectic between mind and world. However, for Bakhtin the result is not a transcendental synthesis, but rather an ongoing, historical process, a series of provisional syntheses. He also relies on Einstein's notion of "simultaneity"—in the universe we can't determine simultaneity as fact, and "there is thus no actual simultaneity: there are only systems of reference by which two different events can be brought into a conceptual unity." There is only dialogism.

These notions of the self as open and under revision, when applied to authorship, are precisely what attract Bakhtin to Dostoevsky and mark the uniqueness, indeed the greatness, of his treatment of that author. For Bakhtin, the author exists somewhere between a character and a person, and in this respect is an invisible "I." In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics Bakhtin focuses upon the polyphonic point of view of the narrator. As opposed to Tolstoy, whose procedure is to have all characters speak through the narrator's controlling point of view, Dostoevsky allows his characters to speak for themselves, usually undercutting each other as well as the narrator both in theme and style. The result is heteroglossia (multiple language types and levels) as opposed to Tolstoy's monoglossia. The real "hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality" (Problems.) Thus the hero "is not an objectified image but an autonomous discourse, pure voice; we do not see him, we hear him." So, Bakhtin notes, "Dostoevsky—to speak paradoxically—thought not in thoughts but in points of view, consciousnesses, voices. He tried to perceive and formulate each thought in such a way that a whole person was expressed and began to sound it." Dostoevsky's fundamental technique is a "transferral of words from one mouth to another, where content remains the same although the tone and ultimate meaning are changed," a form that Bakhtin calls the "double voice." This voice can sound through various embedded forms existing like Chinese boxes, one inside another—with, say, the narrator revealing a character revealing another character's perspective. Parody, rejoinder, dialogue, and folk forms are all deployed. Raskolnikov, for instance, can allow various languages to enter his "inner speech" as a way of evaluating points of view—just as Dostoevsky himself can. It is important to spend time describing this bifocal voice because it is something that also marks the critical procedure of Bakhtin himself. He never does a close reading of a novel; rather he focuses on specific characters as perspectives, citing them amply, letting them speak for themselves. His structure is usually fragmented, a sort of unending dialogue that evades monologic closure. For Bakhtin, the critic does not bring meaning, only further questions.

A good example of the way Bakhtin reads dialogically occurs in his essay "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination. Here he closely analyzes passages from (among others) Dickens' Little Dorrit, showing how Dickens adopts into his own style the styles of various characters, thus producing a sort of "refracted" or indirect quotation, what Bakhtin calls a "hybrid construction." Dickens' "entire text is, in fact, everywhere dotted with quotation marks that serve to separate out little islands of scattered direct speech and purely authorial speech, washed by heteroglot waves from all sides. But it would have been impossible actually to insert such marks, since, as we have seen, one and the same word often figures both as the speech of the author and as the speech of another—and at the same time." For Bakhtin, every novel is a "hybrid," consciously formulated. In his Dostoevsky book, Bakhtin identifies "authorial" and "reported" speech—the first is direct speech, the second is speech within speech (the other's perspective given by syntax, diction, grammar, etc. affecting the hypothetically "pure" authorial speech). The author resides at the boundary of these two, in a way characterized either by linear structures (where the boundaries are clear) or reported structures (where the boundaries blur). Dickens and Dostoevsky are, for Bakhtin, examples of the second, more sophisticated form.

Bakhtin's other essays in Dialogic Imagination examine the problems of genre. "Epic and Novel" traces the development of the closed Greek system, the monologic epic, to more open systems in the modern dialogic novel. The central essay, "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel," analyzes the development of the novel from its beginnings in epic through the use of "chronotopes." The chronotope is a unit of analysis that focuses on the structure of thinking as it reflects the social-linguistic forces of a culture. (The term itself reflects the time/space categories of Kant and Einstein.) Bakhtin sees, for example, a development from "adventure time" (abstract, fragmented sequences in early stories) to "everyday time" (more individual units according to place and person, linked, and with more sophisticated use of point of view) to "biographical time" (where the characters, places, and moments are fully individualized and dialectically related). This historical process is called "novelization"—a term that can be used to talk about the lyric, drama, or any other sort of text. A novelized text is one that exhibits dialogic forces—heteroglossia, multiple viewpoints. The traditional lyric voice does not interest Bakhtin because it is a monoglossic, unified, pure voice. The problems of genre definition he implicitly poses (how do we fit in, say, Williams' Paterson, Pound's Cantos, Stevens, Ashbery?) do not become so insurmountable if we keep in mind that novelization is, like dialogism, a process, not a static category. In fact, these concepts provide a better way to analyze such poets, and indeed to view the developments in contemporary poetry, than do other methodologies.

Perhaps the most Bakhtinian author Bakhtin analyzes is Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel is essentially marked, according to Bakhtin, by clashes in language reflecting different histories, the grotesque use of the body as an intertext for the temporality of the physical world, and the use of the "carnival" atmosphere as an intertext of evolving ideologies. Bakhtin's concern in Rabelais and His World is thus always with history: "all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities." Laughter, in this context, becomes a way of laughing with time, a way to perceive sanely the transience of our existence, to topple the structures of an official society which tries to assert the constancy of its laws. So too, "Popular festive forms look into the future. They present the victory of all the people's material abundance, freedom, equality, brotherhood." Analyzing Rabelais' use of the marketplace, the carnival, and colloquial language and images—all of which developed out of Menippean satire—Bakhtin finds the birth of the modern novel. Language, as always, is the main determinant for Bakhtin. He notes, for instance, in high "medieval Latin, which levels all things, the markers of time were almost entirely effaced," but in Rabelais' vernacular (with all its "low" associations), a progressive, optimistic process of renewal—and revolution—can begin.

Most of what we have been examining constitutes, sometimes in earlier forms, the basis of Bakhtin's dismissal of the Russian Formalists in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, a work that could also be read as a valuable critique of American New Criticism. According to Bakhtin, the Formalists ignored history and attempted to present a single, monoglossic vision that preserved a simple truth for each text. The Formalists felt they could see a static world of poetic values objectively, rigidly, accurately; Bakhtin laughs at their "pathetic references to 'the facts themselves'." Behind Formalism is a set of value assumptions, evolving within the language of philosophy, culture, and criticism, that allows the world to be divided between the pure and eternal poetic language and the historical, pragmatic language that changes in time—as well as between subject and object, form and content. Thus, Bakhtin notes, the Formalists "brought along the features of poetic language and the devices they had used to study it. Their conception of the constructive functions of the elements of the poetic work was predetermined by their characterization of the elements of poetic language. The poetic construction had to illustrate the theory of poetic language already developed." The writer—critic or novelist—cannot escape the dialogue that language already has with him or her, because that dialogue is inherent in the value systems the writer inherits from that language.

Another problem Bakhtin sees with Formalism is its exclusive focus on the text itself, to the abandonment of the author and the reader—both of whom "participate equally in the creation of the represented world in the text" (Dialogic Imagination.). Bakhtin avoids, however, the simple subjectivism of much contemporary reader-response criticism because of the dialogism of his stance, just as he avoids the pseudo-objectivism of the Formalists. For him, text, author, and reader make up an "archetonic" structure, an evolving "situation." What Bakhtin tries to avoid is "turning active and generating problems into ready theses, statements, and philosophical, political, religious, etc. conclusions."

It is interesting, in the light of these various contexts of Bakhtin's thought, to note the distinctions between the study by Todorov [Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle] and that by Clark and Holquist [Mikhail Bakhtin]. Todorov provides a succinct account of Bakhtin's "system" in a schematic and closed way; Clark and Holquist opt for a narrative that preserves much of the openness that Bakhtin himself valued. The approach of Clark and Holquist allows more of the richness and historical development of Bakhtin's ideas to emerge. Theirs is a brilliant study, a full picture of Bakhtin, his circle, the dialogic forces in his life, texts, and times.

What all the recent activity in Bakhtin studies suggests is that this very important thinker—or interlocutor—may finally claim the central position he deserves as one of the key writers of the century. Of course, he is not served by the sort of simplified view of, say, a Denis Donoghue, who takes several pages in a recent issue of Raritan (Fall 1985) to convince himself that all of Bakhtin can be reduced to the struggle between "monologic" and "dialogic." Donoghue wants to place Bakhtin within the context of his own either/or war between "secure" conservatives and wild radicals. But Bakhtin's work is rich both in its metaphors for points of view and inits play among such points of view. He does not, as Donoghue claims, merely echo Auerbach or C. L. Barber, unless one wants to reduce the arguments of those writers to bottom lines and college trot notes. After all, it is process that is so important to Bakhtin. He stands as a corrective to the oversimplifications offered by New Critics and as a more constructive deconstructionist—one who attempts, through dialogue, to build bridges (however provisional) across the "differences" he sees at least as clearly as the deconstructionists themselves.

Richard Jackson, "The Dialogic Self," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 415-20.

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